Let's Polka - An Accordion Blog

Esteban “Steve” Jordan Dies

Steve JordanIt’s a sad day for accordion and Tejano music fans; legendary accordionist Esteban “Steve” Jordan died last night of complications from liver cancer. He was 71 years old.

Known as “El Parche” because of his eye patch, Jordan started his career in conjunto in the 1960s, but soon began exploring and incorporating other musical styles into his work — blending rock, Latin jazz, blues, and salsa with traditional polkas and rancheras. He pushed the limits of the diatonic accordion and wasn’t afraid to experiment with new technology, using electronic devices like phase shifters and fuzzboxes to shape his sound.

“‘What Steve Jordan did was, he electrified the accordion,’ says Sunny Sauceda, a rising star on the squeezebox. ‘He used pedals, he brought in jazz influences to the accordion playing. He brought in the effects that had never been done on the accordion — to this day, nobody does it.’”

Definitely one of the all-time greats. Rest in peace, El Parche.

The Man Who Would Be Polka King

Jan Lewan was living the American dream. After emigrating from Poland in the mid-1970s, Lewan was a hotel worker by day, but a one-man show at night, singing and entertaining at church halls and Polish club functions. He settled down in Hazleton, PA, and started performing polka music, eventually forming his own band, the Jan Lewan Orchestra.

By the 1990s, Lewan was one of polka’s biggest stars, drawing thousands of polka fans to concerts and festivals on the East Coast and earning a Grammy nomination in 1995 for Best Polka Album. This video, from a performance at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, shows Lewan at the height of his popularity (and handkerchief-throwing powers):

And then it all unraveled. In January 2001, Lewan’s tour bus crashed on the way to Florida and two musicians — accordionist Tommy Karas and trombonist John Stabinsky — were killed. Lewan’s son Daniel was also seriously injured.

Lewan was also in hot water over dealings with his store in Hazleton where he sold Polish souvenirs. He sold unregistered promissory notes to investors in order to build his business, but the market soured and he failed to repay them. In 2004, he was sentenced to five years in federal prison for bilking investors out of millions of dollars. While in prison, he was nearly killed by an inmate who tried to slash his throat with a razor blade.

Now, a documentary called The Man Who Would Be Polka King tells the story of Jan Lewan’s rise and fall. Here’s the trailer; the film made the rounds at festivals last year, but you can watch the complete film online at Babelgum.

Lewan was released from prison last year and is currently mounting a comeback to rehabilitate his image and pay restitution to the (justifiably angry) investors whose money he lost. He’s also working on a polka-rap fusion with Vanilla Ice which sounds like it could be grounds for another criminal offense…

Mad (Men) About Accordions

I’ll admit, I don’t watch a lot of TV these days unless it’s Sesame Street or baseball, so when a friend asked me if I watch Mad Men, I just shrugged and replied, “That’s the one with the guys in suits, right?” When his jaw dropped and he said, “YOU MEAN YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE ONE WITH THE ACCORDION?!?”, I figured I should probably catch up.

Indeed, in the third episode of season three — “My Old Kentucky Home” for anyone looking it up on DVD or iTunes — office manager Joan Holloway hosts a tense dinner party where, after prodding from her husband, she reluctantly pulls out her accordion and sings “C’est Magnifique.” (And does it quite well.)

Joan plays accordion on Mad Men

It turns out that Christina Hendricks, the actress who plays Joan, is no newcomer to the accordion; she’s been playing for a few years. In an LA Times Magazine interview last month, she talked about how she got into the accordion:

“I started taking lessons four or five years ago. It is such a rich instrument for one person. You can get so much out of it, like a one-man band. I also think it’s a very romantic instrument, and it channels all the things I love—French culture, Tom Waits—and all the things I try to make my house look like. It’s something I’ve always been interested in.”

For an in-depth deconstruction of the Mad Men accordion scene, check out this essay from ethnomusicologist Meredith Aska McBride, who puts the performance into its 1960s context.

Go West, Accordion Players

For the first time in its 70 year history, the Accordionists and Teachers Guild is bringing its annual festival west of the Rockies to California. The celebration takes place this week — from July 21 to 25 — at the Hilton in Santa Clara, south of San Francisco and just down the road from Let’s Polka headquarters.

This year’s festival includes performances by featured artists and festival orchestras, numerous workshops (from “Bass Patterns” to “Understanding and Playing Balkan Rhythms”), and plenty of opportunities to rub bellows with some of the world’s best accordionists. There’s also the Anthony Galla-Rini Classical Accordion Competition, with over $10,000 in prizes at stake, and special screenings of the documentary “Behind the Bellows”. If you’re a more casual fan, there will be concerts every night (Thursday-Saturday) featuring the likes of Alexander Sevastian, Cory Pesaturo, and more; admission is just $15.

Cory Pesaturo and the Galla-Rini Festival Orchestra will also be performing a special concert on Saturday afternoon at the Great America amusement park. Roller coasters + accordions… what could be better?

I’m going to try to sneak over to the festival for a couple hours to see what’s going on and hopefully meet some of the folks we’ve been writing about these past few years. If you see a guy with a red “Let’s Polka” shirt wandering around, be sure to say hi!

Another Little Squeezer

Little SqueezerWe know, we know… things have been awfully quiet around here lately. We’ve been taking time off to focus on other projects — most notably, a new addition to the Let’s Polka family named Paul Huckleberry. He was born about 10 days ago, weighing in at 8 pounds and 1 ounce, and has already shown a healthy interest in our accordion collection. Mom is doing great and big sister is warming up to the idea of having a little bother, er, brother.

We’d like to apologize to everyone who’s emailed us during the past couple months (and received no response) or visited the site only to see that damn iPad article stuck at the top of the home page. We’re getting back into the swing of things here, so you should start to see a steady stream of accordion news, reviews, and other goodies headed your way.

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Play Accordion On Your iPad

Picking up an iPad this weekend? Fortunately, time spent with your shiny new toy doesn’t have to mean time spent away from the accordion. Alex Komarov has developed a new app called Accordéon which allows you to simulate playing an accordion on your iPad. At $3.99 — plus at least $499 for an iPad — it’s cheaper than a Roland FR-7, but probably not as fun to play.

Accordeon on iPad

See also: Play Accordion On Your iPhone

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Ray Charles, Johnny Cash… if they deserved their own biopics, then why not one for the accordion-playing king of song parodies, “Weird” Al Yankovic? Check out this wish-it-were-true trailer for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, with appearances by Patton Oswalt and Mary Steenburgen (!?!). I love the scene where Al’s dad finds the “Modern Accordion” and “Accordion Player” magazines with Walter Ostanek on the cover.

If you want to see the real “Weird” Al, he’s just announced summer concert dates — check his website for dates.

Accordions in Austin: SXSW 2010

SXSW 2010It’s that time of year again: the start of the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and our accompanying roundup of a few of the accordion-toting artists performing this year. With hundreds of bands on more than eighty stages over five days, you’re bound to find something you like.

  • Pinata Protest
    We’ve been following this energetic, accordion-powered punk/conjunto band from San Antonio for a few years now. Fun, frenetic, and far from your typical Tejano music.
    Cantina mp3
  • Takashi Kamide
    Takashi Kamide switched from classical piano to jazz piano in high school after hearing the legendary Bill Evans. But after being inspired by the sounds of Richard Galliano and Stefan Hussong, he upgraded to jazz accordion.
    Takashi Kamide mp3
  • Cerronato
    Inspired by Colombian vallenato and cumbia, this Austin quartet fuses rich four-part harmonies with accordion, bass, and percussion in an authentic, but innovative mix.
    Mi Compadre Bernabe mp3
  • The Woes
    With a lineup sometimes as large as thirty musicians, the Brooklyn-based Woes play a lively stew of Delta blues and early Country, of bluegrass and New Orleans marching band music, dished out by banjo, harmonica, accordion, French Horn and organ.
    The Secret mp3
  • Los Texas Wranglers
    From traditional Tex-Mex conjunto to country and western, the Wranglers have been packing dance halls in the Austin/San Antonio area for more than ten years.
    Un Poquito De Carino mp3

This is by no means an exhaustive list — check the SXSW site for more bands, as well as schedule and venue information. And for other accordion artists that you may have missed out on, check out our SXSW writeups from 2006, 2007, and 2008 (we clearly dropped the ball last year).

Flickr Find: Graham Jackson

A friend recently visited the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta and found this vintage advertisement with “internationally known musician and entertainer” Graham W. Jackson enjoying a bottled Coke while playing his accordion:

Graham W. Jackson: Internationally Known Musician and Entertainerworld of coca-cola, uploaded by tinyprayers

The son of a well-known singer, Jackson displayed musical talents at an early age and gave piano and organ concerts while still in high school. He was an active performer and bandleader throughout his lifetime, was once designated the official musician of the state of Georgia, and was reportedly the favorite musician of president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It was Jackson’s association with FDR that made him the subject of one of LIFE magazine’s most famous photos — and possibly the best-known accordion photo ever taken. This photo of Jackson tearfully performing “Goin’ Home” as FDR‘s body was carried from the Little White House in Warm Springs, GA, where he died, symbolized the nation’s grief over the president’s passing.

Graham Jackson plays after FDR passes away

Art Van Damme, 1920-2010

Art Van DammeThere aren’t a ton of jazz accordionists and one could argue that, if it wasn’t for Art Van Damme, there might not be any at all. Often called the father of jazz accordion, Van Damme was a pioneer who helped establish the accordion as a serious jazz instrument. He passed away on Monday at the age of 89.

Heavily inspired by the recordings of the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman, Van Damme developed his early style by adapting Goodman’s solos to the accordion. In 1945, he joined NBC Radio as a studio musician where he recorded more than 150 shows with his quintet, in addition to numerous TV appearances on the Tonight Show, Dinah Shore Show, and others. Over the course of fifty years performing, he recorded more than 40 albums, toured throughout Europe and the US, and was voted “Top Accordionist” in Downbeat magazine’s annual poll of jazz musicians ten years running. His melodic improvisation and light touch were hallmarks of his playing.

If you’re interested in exploring Art’s music, you can find a few of his 1950’s albums on iTunes. I also highly recommend the four-CD compilation Squeeze Me: The Jazz and Swing Accordion Story. It’s an excellent introduction to jazz accordion and features tracks from Van Damme, Joe Mooney, Johnny Meyer, Mat Mathews, and many more.

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